Murray-Darling Basin fight still afloat
When Mark Twain said "whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting" he wasn't specifically referring to the Murray-Darling Basin but might as well have been.
The mighty catchment blankets a seventh of Australia's land mass, features six of its seven longest rivers, irrigates 40 per cent of its crops and is a cultural and natural wonder.
Yet north is at odds with south over its future, left is opposed to right and myriad state, commonwealth, environmental, agricultural and Indigenous stakeholders are also on a war footing.
In the latest round of the all-in stoush which has plagued the Basin's management for more than two decades, the NSW Legislative Council on Thursday blocked the government's long-awaited floodplain harvesting reforms.
Water Minister Melinda Pavey says they were proposed to licence and cap the amount of floodwater water captured by irrigators, particularly in the state's north.
She has decried the rejection as "disgraceful" and a lost opportunity to affect a net reduction in water intake.
Opposition to the reforms followed legal advice they would potentially permit unlimited private access to overland flows via dams, levees and pumping, thus further jeopardising southern tributaries, lakes and wetlands.
At a federal level, the NSW government is also under fire.
At Senate Committee hearings in Shepparton and Deniliquin on Thursday the state was told to go back to the drawing board on all 20 of its Basin water resource plans, and rebuked for failing to consult with Indigenous groups.
This at a time when all other states have at least won approval for their plans and with Ms Pavey blaming NSW's plan issues on clerical errors. State Labor is standing firm with the Greens and have support from some Shooters, Fishers and Farmers.
Meanwhile, senior federal Nationals Bridget McKenzie and Perin Davey have accused the ALP of playing politics at the expense of farmers and communities in northern Victoria, with the southern state's Labor government apparently at odds with the federal branch over the same issue.
However it's behind the political storm where blue-in-the-face experts continue to issue warnings about the health of the Murray.
No-one really knows how much floodwater is being siphoned from the Basin's north, according to the independent Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.
And without proper data, licences could lock in allocations that are too high to sustain the river system, its dependent ecosystems and populations.
"The issue is not that things (like floodplain harvesting) should be licensed," Professor Richard Kingsford, a river ecologist and conservation biologist with the group, has told AAP.
"They should have been 20 years ago.
"It's about having enough confidence that NSW isn't just handing out another windfall gain in terms of the water that's in the river."
He said the 1995 Murray Darling Basin Cap specified that water diversions be capped at 1993/94 levels, meaning whatever was being taken back then, should not be exceeded.
But NSW has never done the work to get the numbers, Prof Kingsford said.
"They will say they know because they modelled it.
"They will tell you that their models are fabulous but there's no transparency around any of it. They are relying on models with very little data."
Much is at stake, especially downstream and in relation to the silent masses of plants and animals.
"The river red gums and coolabahs and the black box, the native species that don't have a voice when the water that used to sustain them is taken," he said.
There are risks too for the taxpayer if the government realises in future that too much water is being taken and tries to fix the situation.
"You've already given someone a licence and they, presumably, would have the right to claim compensation because you are taking water away from them."
The opposite dilemma would appear to be so for First Nations people, according to University of Canberra water sciences expert Bradley Moggridge.
Their disconnection from the Basin is everything to do with what he calls the "decoupling of land and water".
States have traditionally given water away to those with land and Indigenous communities have missed out, he told a forum hosted by science publication, Cosmos, on Thursday.
"So the only ways for them to get water was through the Aboriginal Land Rights Act ... and those opportunities were linked to that property.
"But in the modern context ... if Aboriginal people want water, they have got to go to the market and buy it and potentially, that is not going to happen."
While the federal government has earmarked $40 million for Indigenous water rights, concerns have been raised that the money will be diverted for other uses.
It promised in 2018 to create a fund to allow Indigenous people in the Murray-Darling to buy water for cultural and economic benefit but Associate Professor Moggridge disputes its worth.
Community development licences supposed to deliver an economic gain up to a limit of 500 megalitres only allow pumping in high flow, he said.
"Try and get a bank loan to generate an economic gain for that or build a business around pumping in high flow when it's flooding. Good luck."
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